Roman Proud, Wayward Widower
by Tino Calabia (Peru 1963–65)
Reviewed by Bryant Wieneke (Niger 1974–76)
UNLIKE MANY STORIES prompted by a Peace Corps Volunteer’s adventures, Roman Proud, Wayward Widower is about relationships. The primary focus of the novel is the emotional roller-coaster ride caused by the central character’s dalliances. Roman’s luck with beautiful women seems rather extraordinary — especially when there is so little description of him either by the author or other characters — but his affairs are detailed in vignettes that create empathy for him in both his incarnations: a young man searching for something he can’t quite understand, and a much older man figuring out what he wants.
The novel opens with Roman, sixty-four years old and several years away from the death of his wife, pushing hard for a relationship with Nadia, a captivating Russian woman he met in Washington, D.C. More than a decade younger than Roman, Nadia deflects his marriage proposal without much explanation. She likes “hanging out” with him, but does not want more from their relationship. Not surprisingly, Roman interprets this treatment as a rejection.
Rejection is not new to Roman. The novel’s second segment describes his encounter with another woman in New York City decades after she broke his heart. Regina is still ravishing and lithesome in her sixties, and their passion is rekindled. Times have changed, however. Not only are they much older, but she has become a successful doctor and writer. After an exhilarating evening, the two single sixty-somethings return to the neutral corners of their lives.
The novel then takes the reader back to Roman’s Peace Corps days soon after President John F. Kennedy announced the new international program. This segment of the story is less about the Peace Corps than about Roman’s infatuation with a winsome beauty named Ellen. Eventually, the two young and idealistic PCVs forge a relationship that blossoms as they are assigned to serve together in the town of Pirgotu in South America’s Atacama Desert. Ellen teaches at a nursing school, and Roman becomes a professor — but of the English language, not literature as he had imagined.
Despite Ellen’s interactions with a surgeon who resembles Omar Shariff and Roman’s interactions with his attractive female students, the Volunteers’ relationship deepens during their Peace Corps service. Experiencing the newness and challenges of a foreign culture unites them. Inexplicably, after the death of Ellen’s closest friend in Pirgota, both Ellen and Roman become more absorbed in their work. They begin to spend less time together, to drift away, and eventually their plans to marry fade.
While Roman Proud could be described as a romance novel, the author does use the nuances of Roman’s and Ellen’s changing bond as a vehicle to describe life in this distant land. The characters’ perceptions are the insights of travelers who have lingered long enough in a foreign culture to know it well. A local man who sees what has happened to Roman and Ellen observes sagely that living in a different culture changes people, and maintaining a relationship in such circumstances is very difficult.
The end of Roman Proud, Wayward Widower returns to the beginning. Once again, the reader joins the sixty-four year old on the make in D.C., where in addition to Nadia, Roman has re-encountered Regina and Ellen. He is reluctant to commit himself emotionally to anyone, given his previous rejection by all three women, but he finally makes a choice that is an affirmation of his life. Amazingly, the Peace Corps plays a role in this redemption.
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Bryant Wieneke is the author of Winning Without the Spin (Nova Science 1999) and a series of suspense novels challenging the militaristic nature of American foreign policy. His latest work is Timbuktu and Ouaga Too, available at www.peacerosepublishing.com.